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Doug Ford, left, and Rob Ford in November, 2010.Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail

Most Torontonians have come to regard Rob and Doug Ford as a fraternal political tag-team with indistinguishable conservative views, but the battle over the future of the Port Lands has exposed a rift between the two.

The 11th-hour waterfront compromise worked out for this week's council meeting revealed that Mayor Rob Ford, for the first time since taking office, took quiet but drastic steps to extinguish a political conflagration ignited by his outspoken older brother, councillor for Ward 2 in Etobicoke.

In the run-up to Wednesday's vote, stories about arguments between the two men circulated around City Hall, according to some Ford allies, one of whom described Doug Ford as "persona non grata" for many councillors. "The mayor knows it. He hears about it from those councillors. He was frustrated by his brother."

Others say they weren't aware of any tension.

Either way, their relationship has shifted, observed Shelley Carroll, councillor for Don Valley East. "You don't see them so much in lockstep with one another. I think the mayor has learned. Councillor Ford now has the status that is fair. He's a newly elected councillor."

The story behind council's unanimous decision to stop Doug Ford from killing the Waterfront Toronto plan for the mouth of the Don River is one involving weeks of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring. It's the tale of how an organized public campaign, coupled with the efforts of a broad spectrum of politicians, prevailed over what one member of the executive committee describes as a "naive" gambit to commandeer the waterfront revitalization process. Above all, the episode reveals how Rob Ford, encouraged by his more moderate political supporters, had little choice but to turn against the vision of his brother.

Long before the plan surfaced in late August, the downtown councillors were on high alert for a play involving lakefront land, and had put the word out to residents' groups, activist networks and even developers.

When Councillor Ford took to the airwaves to promote his new "jaw-dropping" dream for the waterfront in late August, some councillors initially dismissed it as just talk. But then when the Aug. 22 staff report outlining Councillor Ford's changes appeared on the agenda of the executive committee, councillors of all political stripes began trooping into Mayor Ford's office to find out what was up.

Waterfront Toronto's plan to naturalize the mouth of the Don had long been backed by left-leaning councillors, but the agency in recent years had also won over council conservatives like John Parker. The Ford plan "first struck me as, 'gee, can we really do that?'" Mr. Parker said Thursday. "The more thought I gave to it, the more concerned I became that we could possibly be going down a bad path."

Indeed, the first defections came from councillors with ridings abutting the Don River. Executive committee member Jaye Robinson, whose father grew up on a Hogg's Hollow homestead backing on to the Don, recalled paddling down the river earlier this spring. After seeing how the river degraded into the concrete Keating Channel, she concluded that Waterfront Toronto's naturalization plan was the right solution. Describing the initial staff report as "very light," she opted to skip the original committee vote on Sept. 6, thus signalling her unease to council's centre left.

Others on the right, even those skeptical about Waterfront Toronto's ability to deliver on its vision, complained to the mayor's office that Councillor Ford and his talk of a Ferris wheel and monorail had created an unwelcome distraction at a time when the administration was pushing a politically unpopular cost-cutting agenda.

Council's progressive wing quickly made its move, twinning left-leaning councillors with colleagues on the middle or the right with whom they'd developed a decent working relationship. They also dispatched waterfront planning experts like Paul Bedford, former chief city planner, and former mayor David Crombie to approach councillors directly and explain the consequences of the new plan. Ms. Carroll said other prominent figures, like former banker Charles Coffey, were asked to contact the provincial Liberals, whose connections to council centrists like Michelle Berardinetti and Josh Colle run deep.

Meanwhile, Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, who represents the Beaches, quietly began taking pairs of councillors from midtown or suburban wards on tours of the eastern and central waterfront, with a stop at Waterfront Toronto's head office to hear a presentation on the agency's vision. "I just thought, seeing is believing," she said.

As pressure mounted, Ms. Carroll said, it became apparent that she could marshal enough votes to kill Mr. Ford's proposal on the floor of council. But Waterfront Toronto officials wanted a compromise deal because they felt they needed to build a working relationship with Mayor Ford.

By mid-September, with Councillor Ford still looking to drum up support for his scheme, executive committee members Peter Milczyn and Michael Thompson approached the mayor's office about hammering out a compromise deal with downtown councillors Paula Fletcher and Pam McConnell.

The veteran left-wingers were careful not to publicly disparage the mayor, while city officials and Waterfront Toronto staff began negotiating a "protocol" laying out how the agency could hasten its development plans without scrapping all the work already done through its lengthy approvals process.

Mr. Thompson said the mayor gave them the green light to cut a deal. "He was very clear that he wanted to have an agreement." The political and bureaucratic negotiating teams worked through the weekend and arrived at an agreement late Monday.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Ford strolled up to the council lounge to face reporters. With Mr. Milczyn and Mr. Thompson listening, he appeared feistier and more talkative than usual, predicting that the outcome would surprise everyone, including his critics. "I can't wait to see the vote."

Doug Ford, for his part, remained on the council floor, and said nothing during the brief feel-good debate that culminated in an unprecedented unanimous vote, and applause.

Special to The Globe and Mail